Orphan Black 509: Alex Levine breaks down the series’ penultimate episode

Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen Orphan Black Episode 509, “One Fettered Slave.”

“You are shit mother.” —Helena

Orphan Black has come full circle. Season 1 ended with Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) trying to kill her twin sister, Helena (Maslany), and the penultimate episode of Season 5—and the series—ends with Sarah trying to save her. Imprisoned in the bowels of Dyad by P.T. Westmorland (Stephan McHattie)—and emotionally tormented by Virginia Coady (Kyra Harper)—Helena makes the only choice that makes sense to her: to commit suicide to spare her unborn “bebes” from the life of torment she has endured. (And flashbacks showing the unholy acts of monsters wearing holy clothes emphasize that she has been viciously abused from a very young age.)

Luckily, Sarah’s non-convincing impersonation of Rachel (Maslany) lands her in the right place to offer a life-saving blood transfusion, which allows Helena to take out Coady—a “shit mother” if there ever was one—in brutally satisfying fashion. But we’re left with a major cliffhanger, as Helena’s water breaks while she and Sarah are trying to escape Dyad.

Joining us to break down all the plot twists in the second-to-last episode of Orphan Black is co-executive producer Alex Levine, who tells us more about Helena’s flashback scenes and gives us a few hints about next week’s huge series finale.

Penultimate episodes can be tricky because you want to build momentum, but you don’t want to outshine the finale. And “One Fettered Slave” isn’t just any penultimate episode, it’s the penultimate episode of the entire series. Did that pose any special challenges for you?
Alex Levine: Oh man! Every episode of Orphan Black poses special challenges, but yes, you’re right, the pressure was high on this one. And frankly, we shifted gears very late in the process. As a creative group, the decision was made to set the story on the mainland, in Dyad, during prep, rather than return to the island. We actually overhauled the story and rewrote half the script well into the prep process, which is very unusual. But we all knew we were making the right decision by changing course.

It’s an honour to write such an important episode of the show, and I was willing to do whatever it takes to make it as good as possible. But it wasn’t easy! I am confident that we made the right decisions. And I have to give credit to a posse of young creatives for pushing to change the direction of the episode and make it great: Mackenzie Donaldson, Renee St. Cyr and Tatiana too.

This was Helena’s episode, and we find out lots of details about her backstory. How did the writers’ room decide what portions of her dark past to focus on?
The Helena flashbacks were challenging but so fun to dig into. The genesis of the early convent scenes was a scene from a classic Faulkner novel, Light in August. There’s a killer in that story who has a seminal event in his childhood. So I riffed on that, and with Tat’s help, created a visceral early moment in Helena’s childhood where we see that she isn’t just an evil child, she’s a victim. The other scenes were key moments of her past we knew we wanted to explore, and it was about choosing the moments we felt would resonate with Helena’s current predicament. John was always eager to show her first kill, and the twist of her not knowing she’s a clone really made it sing. Graeme and Renee deserve much credit for the Barbie scenes with Tomas. The Barbie house that our art department created was brilliant.

Cynthia Galant played young Rachel in Episode 507. Why was Habree Larratt cast as young Helena for this episode?
Cynthia was cast to portray young Rachel, and we love her in that role. She’s composed and obedient and restrained. She’s a wonderful young actor with great chops. But in portraying young Helena, we wanted to be sure we had an actor who could explode emotionally, who is wild and untameable. And Habree really blew us away during the auditioning process. Her portrayal gave us the confidence to expand the scenes with Young Helena.

I thought the scenes between Helena and Dr. Coady were fascinating, with their back and forth about Coady killing her kids and Helena being an unfit mother. 
In any pairing, we are looking for the deep dramatic juice. We wanted to dig into this relationship anew, because they did have a number of scenes back in Season 3 at the Castor camp. We knew Coady was struggling with her responsibilities as a mother and that helped crystallize the line in which P.T. forces her to euthanize Mark. And we figured she would want to drag Helena into that nightmare with her. Tatiana actually pushed for Coady to be harsher in the final climactic scenes. She wanted Helena to be destroyed by this woman, to properly motivate Helena’s decision to commit suicide.

The scene where Coady killed Mark was both chilling and heartbreaking. Why did she go through with it?
I think people forget that Virginia is a ruthless eugenicist. She bought into P.T.’s grand vision and had the cold, evil heart to do certain things that no other party would do. She started this thing with him and she had no moral qualms about using humans as experiments. She always saw the big picture, even with the Castor sterilization plan. And she was very loyal to P.T.; she knows he has the grand vision, that she can’t do it without him. But she also grew to love Mark and became a mother by default. The struggle you see is the amoral heartless scientist suffocating her own maternal instincts. Kyra is a terrific actor and she definitely showed depth in that relationship and in that scene.

I’m sure you gave half the OB fandom a heart attack when Helena tried to kill herself to save her babies from Neolution and herself. Tell me about the decision to have her attempt suicide—and, after all she’s been through, can she handle being a mother?
We had a number of discussions about this choice. We know it’s a very dark choice, that it’s almost anathema to lots of people, specifically mothers. But we saw it as a heroic choice. Helena saw that these children would end up being tortured, being used and manipulated, being twisted and corrupted as she was corrupted as a child. And she believed by making this choice that she was saving them from a lifetime of horrors. I likened this choice to the siege of Masada, one of the final events of the Roman-Jewish war in 73-74 AD. The Jews were trapped on their mountain top village, Masada, surrounded by the Romans. It was only a matter of time before the Romans, who were building a ramp, would invade and enslave them. Having resolved never to be servants to the Romans, the Jews in Masada decided to die free instead. They killed each other and last man committed suicide. But Helena is so resourceful, we had to take her to a place where she truly felt she was out of options. And it sure helps to have an actor as strong as Tatiana sell that moment and make the emotionality credible.

As for Helena being a fit mother, I think she’ll be OK, in that she’ll probably let them run around like wild pigs and climb trees and eat dirt.

If there was any doubt about it, this episode proved that P.T. Westmorland is an evil, crazy misogynist—and he’s also bald! What do you think of him as the ultimate villain of Orphan Black? Is he someone that you and John Fawcett and Graeme Manson envisioned all along?
P.T. was always supposed to epitomize the misogynistic patriarchy that still pervades the world. But he really lets his flag fly in these last few episodes. I think we always knew he had to say some evil things to represent this accursed, awful world view that is the root of all the horrors of Neolution, we just needed to get him to a desperate enough place where he would let loose. I think he and Coady are joint grand villains, sort of a 1a and 1b. And by the way, Stephen McHattie isn’t bald. He’s got some hair, but he thought the better choice would be to shave his head once the wig came off, and it turned out great.

OK, this episode ends with Sarah and Helena—who’s in labour!—trapped in Dyad with Westmorland. What can you tell us about the big series finale?
The best thing I can tell you is that the finale is not all run and jump/battles. We will get to see our sestras as they come to terms with life after the war. And that, to me, is the most interesting and rich part. I have to give Graeme full props for carving out of each episode and each season ample time to explore these characters simply as human beings in a very credible version of our world. I forget who, but somebody smart said sci-fi is just a vehicle to explore how people react under different circumstances. It’s only good when the characters are truly relatable, no matter how cool the sci-fi ideas are. And that’s the best part of Orphan Black—the mundane, the realistic, the human.

You have been with Orphan Black since the beginning. How has the show changed you as a writer? What will you miss about working on the show the most?
I have grown so much as a writer working with Graeme and some of the best writers in Canada. Everything I write now is coloured by what I’ve learned on Orphan. The reason I stayed with the show all this time is that the material and the characters speak to me. I don’t think any other show being produced in Canada offers the same canvas in terms of all the story and humanity we get to put on screen. And Orphan Black is really three or four shows in one: a thriller, a love story, a horror movie, and a suburban satire. Where else am I going to find that, all in one script?

John and Graeme are experts at what they do. John is such a seasoned director, his instincts are so good in prep and on the floor. And obviously—OBVIOUSLY—we have the best actor in Canada, and working with her is such an incredible treat. To watch her transform material is really rewarding. She is such a professional in every way and sets a tone for all the other actors and cast and crew; and us as writers and producers. And we have a bunch of other amazing actors as well. Jordan and Kevin and Kristian and Maria, just to name our core cast. I’ve been on other series where there are difficult people, people who put their ego above the show. And that never ever happened on Orphan Black. Not ever. And that’s a testament to the quality of the bosses and department heads. Special shout out to Kerry Appleyard, our exec from Temple Street, who’s also a lovely person and brilliant creative who always helped set the tone. End of the day, I’m extremely humbled and grateful to have been part of the series.

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Space.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.



One thought on “Orphan Black 509: Alex Levine breaks down the series’ penultimate episode”

  1. “Best actor in Canada”? I think you are selling one of the world’s best actors a bit short there! I can’t think of many performances to compare with what Tatiana Maslany has been delivering, episode after episode in this great series. Even this week, there was a totally convincing conversation between Alison and Cosima, discussing their sister Sarah, and it was impossible to remember that all three are played by the same actress. I honestly believe she belongs in the Meryl Streep / Daniel Day-Lewis bracket of actors.

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